It’s romance at the polls and then a dose of harsh realities | OPINION

THE romance of election promises can soon turn into a political horror story.

One of the great pleasures in watching a really good movie or reading a really good book is working out who the bad guy really is.

We can look at government spending in a similar way. First up, any government will trumpet all the goodness that will flow from its proposed outlay. We will be encouraged to share this positive vision. But we will all have our different views.

For example, I see the recent Abbott government announcement of vouchers for relationship counselling as a badly thought out proposal that is little more than an industry subsidy. Others see it as a great way to help more Australians be content in their relationships. I reckon I am being pragmatic and others idealistic. And I want my tax dollars spent pragmatically.

Any government offer of cash will look attractive to some but the general population always has good reason to be sceptical. Just consider how many billions were wasted in the former Labor government’s idealistically titled “Building The Education Revolution”. It spent more than $16 billion in taxpayers’ money. Some estimates had the build value as being only half that.

Make a little list in your head of where you would like to have seen that money spent. Would you pay off debt, spend more on research, allocate more to indigenous scholarships, or something else?

We may all have different ideas on that, but we should all agree that we do not want our money wasted. Money being spent isn’t intrinsically a good thing. It is what we get for it that counts.

In novels and movies, we all understand when temptation confronts a hero or heroine. “Yes, this young man or woman is attractive. Had we met earlier, things might have been different, but we didn’t and they aren’t. I have a partner, kids.” So it is with your money. There may be endless lists of good ideas, but if we are already committed elsewhere, we are just being irresponsible and indulgent if we go off spending more before we extricate ourselves from our current commitments. We all like the idea of something for nothing. But when our fellow citizens are paying, we should think twice.

A regular character we see in fictional dramas is the man or woman who is stupid and irresponsible with money. We feel for the other half of the relationship — the wife who is left with masses of debt by a foolish husband who couldn’t manage his affairs; the poor bloke who has a wife who thinks the brand of her shoes or handbag is so important that she doesn’t stop spending.

Why don’t we think the same way of governments that promise us everything? Why is it we don’t think of ourselves that way when we spend money the taxpayer hasn’t got, indeed has to borrow? Why is it OK for us to say “we want this, so we’ll buy it and our kids can pay”?

Governments can be shallow like that.

“It seems not too bad an idea at the time, it will win a few votes, so let’s do it.” They are looking for votes; they are not looking at the best value for your dollar.

There’s another silly mistake governments make.

They commit to spending an amount on an area, such as education, without working out first whether we can actually spend that money sensibly. We saw during the global financial crisis, for example, that when money floods into an area too quickly, often you just cannot spend it all wisely.

Governments often work out what we can afford today. But they need to look at whether we can afford it tomorrow.

So the bad guy in the great novel of government spending is the one who spends to look good, or to buy your vote, who doesn’t care if we can’t afford it.

Fairfax columnist Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government and is a member of the Abbott government-appointed Commission of Audit.